It. It. It.
It is a pronoun.
And it troubled me in a friend’s piece of writing recently.
She was trying to create a sense of mystery and suspense by referring to some grisly “it” that had not yet been named. But unlike JK Rowling’s He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, whose name we actually knew, this nameless something or someone or someplace was more baffling than terrifying, more off-putting than eldritch.
I discovered, after impatiently slogging along, that this IT was a massacre, a very real one, and while the piece was merely a rough draft, a first shot at putting memories and impressions into pixels, there is such a thing as a draft so rough that it’s nearly indecipherable.
So when is it effective to withhold information from the reader? After all, we don’t want to commit the opposite – the infamous info-dump, that maddening killer of momentum.
We can take a cue from the Bard here, who very famously told audiences straight up that Romeo & Juliet were headed for an early grave. The groundlings down front barely had time to jostle for a dry spot in the dirt before they knew the ending. And yet the suspense and emotional buildup was so unbearable that alternate, happy endings eventually sprung up, and theatres produced the happy and tragic versions on alternate days.
Foreshadowing is the term we use for when authors drop hints of what’s to come. “It” isn’t foreshadowing – it’s obfuscation. Confusion. A clouding of intent. And the writer who thinks shortcuts like this will work is bound to lose readers whose patience is sorely tested, and whose intelligence is surely insulted.
What makes foreshadowing work is often the dire wish of the audience to prevent what we desperately hope isn’t inevitable, an irrepressible urge to shout “don’t go there!” or “don’t open that door!” or even “she’s not really dead!” And this happens despite getting strong hints of what’s to come, if not being told outright.
Then again, knowing too much becomes those dreaded spoilers. I hear River Song in my head whenever I’m writing what I think is a tidy bit of foreshadowing. She’s wagging a finger at me, shaking her copper curls. Spoilers!
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself how well do you trust your readers to “get it” in your writing? If you don’t trust us, you have the wrong audience. It’s not a matter of smart or stupid, but of inference and understanding. We can’t infer anything from missing information. Are you leaving details out because you think it’s mysterious? It’s not. Tell us at least enough to know what’s our bottom line – a zombie apocalypse, a doomed romance, an impending natural disaster? Give us strong hints of the specific incident – not just vague allusions to some fill-in-the-blank that might eventually happen, should you ever feel inspired to tell us.
And if you spot an “it” when you mean “massacre”? Delete it. Change it. Revise it.
In building suspense, it doesn’t cut it.